‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ Is the Culinary Travel Show that Home Cooks Need Now

We talked to Samin Nosrat about the new Netflix series based on her best-selling book, and why imperfection is an asset when it comes to food.

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Oct 12 2018, 2:15pm

All photos courtesy Netflix

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was the cookbook of 2017 that took the world by storm, bringing the supremely lovable and charismatic chef Samin Nosrat officially onto the scene. In the year since the book’s debut, critics have hailed her as the Julia Child of the modern era, someone who not only can teach home cooking in a clear and compelling way, but also makes highbrow restaurant techniques and dishes feel accessible and tackle-able for the amateur home chef. That, and she’s really, really great on camera.

A four-part television adaptation of the book was released yesterday, on Netflix, with an episode dedicated to each of the elements Nosrat theorizes are all anyone needs to understand in order to be a great cook. In the episode dedicated to salt, she travels to Japan to learn about all the different forms that salt can take as an ingredient, from sea salt, to soy sauce, to miso paste. To explore the importance of fat in building flavor in a cuisine, she heads to Italy to talk to olive oil farmers and old-school red cow parmesan producers. It’s a vivid, breathtaking show, with sweeping vistas and compelling on-screen characters, and of course, a sharp yet hilarious host in Samin. We caught up with her earlier this week to talk about what went into adapting her book into a TV show, and all that she learned along the way.

MUNCHIES: From a show that is so heavy in sensory details, what are some standout sensory experience memories that you keep lingering on all this time after production?

Samin Nosrat: The soy sauce factory is my top one, for sure. I was weeping in there. I was like, “You gotta use the weeping footage, guys!” It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted. It was beyond what I had ever conceived of soy sauce as. It’s almost like a caramel sauce. And just one part was the deliciousness. Then beyond just how good it tasted was seeing the incredible work and history and the story behind this family. He’s a fifth-generation soy sauce maker, doing it the extremely traditional way. It was just unbelievable. That was so moving. It was too much for me to handle, and I just started weeping.

Getting to see parmesan cheese being made was a big thing for me, because that is probably my one ingredient. Like if I had to just choose one thing, that’s it. And specifically that red cow parmesan, because I came up in a kitchen [at Chez Panisse] that used that, and learning this was the original taste of parmesan from these cows that produce this very fatty, very high in glutamates milk—just getting to connect with this thing that had been so formative in my cooking career was really important.

I’ll also never forget the experience of going into the Yucatan and meeting those incredible women who harvest that honey. They almost have a cooperative with those bees. I mean obviously, they had told me that the honey would be acidic—and all honey is somewhat acidic, which, for most of us, is obscured under its sweetness, but it’s there. But this was beyond. And it really tasted like honey lemonade. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted and I’ll never forget that. And then the very, very… very spicy salsas.

It seems very intentional that a lot of the on-screen experts you talk to were women. Just anecdotally, it seems like other male-hosted travel and culinary shows are upwards of 80/20 man-to-woman casting for those sorts of experts. You seemed to directly invert that ratio. What was the process behind finding those perfect people to turn this book into a show?

I feel like I am here to serve home cooks and to champion them, and I try to do that in all different ways. So I do that as a teacher, and as someone who’s trying to make these elements and the idea of being a comfortable, capable cook at home accessible to everyone. So that’s the first part of the thought process. And a thing that I have noticed over time is that home cooks are not really represented on food television. I wanted to make a point of doing that. Because there’s already enough TV that glamorizes professional cooking, and puts those people on the pedestal. Which of course they deserve! But also, there are more stories to tell. And, you know, most home cooks tend to be women. When we were going to countries that were not primarily white, it was important to prioritize showing the people of that culture on camera as the experts, when possible. And so that was absolutely intentional. It’s something we spent a lot of energy and time on. Because sometimes, the most obvious search result is not the grandma in the Yucatan who doesn’t speak English or have an internet connection. So that takes some extra work to find her. … I think because I was a broken record about [wanting women on camera], eventually we all got on the same boat. And people could anticipate what I was gonna say if they were going to bring me another male restaurant chef or something. They were like, “yeah, okay, she’s not gonna like this.” [laughs] So by the end we were all sailing the same ship toward home cooks and diversity.

What was it like learning the ropes of TV production?

What’s interesting is that I had this sense that I would be completely out of my depth. And very quickly, on the first shoot, I realized that the exact same skills that make a good cook, especially in a restaurant, are directly transferrable to what makes a good producer. The kinds of situations I’ve been dropped into as a cook—you know, “we have to cook a dinner for 200 diplomats in China, but there’s no running water, yet dinner has to be on the table at five, so figure it out!” You have impossible situations, impossibly high standards, deadlines, pressures logistically coming from all directions, and yet you still have to deliver. That is exactly the same in a restaurant as on a set. I think what was amazing was that I had that in my crew. I adored them, and I knew that they would do anything for me, and that allowed us all to do our best.

People keep going, “Oh you went to Mexico! You must have eaten such delicious food over your nine days there!” And I’m like, well the production days were so long that often we’d wake up before sunrise, and there’s nothing open really to eat, so we’d eat stale muffins from Starbucks. And then our hotel was in this sort of strip mall that had a Johnny Rockets. [laughs] I ate more Johnny Rockets in Mexico than I have in my whole life!

Tell me about the episode where you cook with your mother. What was the decision like behind that? Not everybody would want to put their families on screen and make something like this so personal.

To be totally honest, I had just re-watched Ugly Delicious with David Chang, and the best one for me is the one where he cooks with his mom. They’re in the kitchen, and she just goes, “No no, you’re doing it wrong.” [laughs] You know, he gets really timid, and she’s correcting him, and she’s totally performing for the camera, and she was just like the best part of that whole series for me. There’s a genius behind bringing on the mom of the professional, the expert, and being like “You have no idea what you’re doing.”

And in the way that any mother-daughter relationship is, I knew it would be challenging to bring her, and definitely a commitment emotionally on my part. But also, I knew this would make amazing TV, because I know my mom, and I know she’s not going to hold back, she’s going to tell me what she thinks, and she’s just gonna be real sassy.

Yeah, watching your interactions very much felt like “Wow, yes, that is definitely me and my mom in the kitchen. That is all of us with our mom in the kitchen.”

[Laughing] Totally! And you know, I’m a ham. And—this is a conscientious teaching technique for me—I’m always willing to make a mistake publicly, or show myself not knowing, or admit that I don’t know everything. Because I think that humanity disarms people, and makes people think, “Oh I don’t have to put you on a pedestal. Your mom is bossing you around in the kitchen? My mom does that too!”

I’m still so embarrassed of the tahdig we made, because I just know every Iranian lady in the world is gonna judge us so harshly when that comes out, because it’s not perfectly brown. And I know how to make that like clockwork, and my mom—I don’t know if she was off her game that day or what, but she kept turning down the stove, and I was like [screaming] turn it up!! But everyone has said it's good that it's not perfect.

Well I appreciated the honesty of that, because in any other cooking show, you could have just cut that footage and made a new one.

Yeah, I was just like, it is what it is! But all the Iranian ladies are gonna be @’ing me, though.

On that, what do you think is going to be the thing that people get talking about first? What’s the screenshot everyone’s going to be sharing of the stand out scene?

Oh that’s a good question! I think the thing that is the most breathtaking, the character that is the most lovable that everyone has commented on, is Lydia. The pesto grandma. And the fact that that’s her actual home. We cooked a little in her kitchen, but then we go outside to her patio and it looks like it could be a movie set. It is bananas! [laughs] She’s got her Hermes scarf, and her gold jewelry, and her pearls, and she’s so perfect—I suspect that Lydia is gonna be the secret star. And we met her just like we met a lot of the other people—she’s the mother-in-law of one of my friends. And so my friend has built Lydia a website, in preparation for her internet stardom! [laughs] I’m like, 'go Lydia!'

And I want everyone who was on the show to get attention, and get credit, and maybe sell some stuff and make some money! That is a very real part of my considerations of why and how we chose the people we wanted to be involved. I was in an epic WhatsApp text chain with the honey ladies—not even the honey ladies, ‘cause they don’t have phones—but the foundation that takes care of them. I’m like, “You need to get your website ready. To sell some honey!”

How much did your experience starting out at Chez Panisse, where strong female leadership set the tone for the company, inform how you think about making things—books or TV—now?

I was very fortunate to stumble into an institution whose tone was set by a woman, and that defined absolutely what cooking and being a restaurant cook could be like. But I also understand that that exists outside of the norm. Chez Panisse is a magical bubble in a lot of ways, a beautiful imaginary bubble, but it doesn’t reflect a lot of reality. But it is something we can all aspire to be! … I have this dream of, “We can be this!”

[That experience] influences everything I do, and in terms of the show, I went into it being like, “We’re gonna have a female director.” And I didn’t have a ton of power to necessarily dictate that, but it was something that I absolutely pushed for. And I will say, having a female director and incredible female leadership at Netflix—like Lisa Nishimura who is the head of the documentary studio… you have to Google her. I’m not even kidding. She is a person to really look up to. She is an incredible force who has done so much work to create diversity within the doc studio, and that’s 100 percent reflected on all of the people who work on my show, who are so many people of color, so many women. And you feel it. I’ve been on sets for other shows, some of which I’ve been filmed in, that are entirely male except for one person. And the feeling is totally different. And it’s not that I don’t want to work with men. But I want to set a tone of collaboration and communication and transparency.

I have a lot of ideas about what I want to put out into the world, and with whom, and I think because I am a woman of color, I feel like people who have experiences outside the norm often are people who I have some simpatico with. We get each other. I want to make things for them.